Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 14, 2021

Knicks Fans Have Seen This One Before

Just as the expatriate American nightclub owner Rick Blaine and the alluring Ilsa Lund will always have Paris, as he so famously reminded her on the airport tarmac, this year’s version of the New York Knicks and their long-suffering fans will always have 5-3. That was the Knickerbockers’ record one week ago in the wake of a 112-100 victory over the visiting Utah Jazz. Right there on the floor of the World’s Most Famous Arena, as some overwrought member of Madison Square Garden’s marketing department long ago styled James Dolan’s playpen that sits atop Penn Station in Midtown Manhattan, the Knicks had rallied from a 12-point deficit at the break, scoring 68 in the second half to boost the team’s winning percentage to a gaudy .625. That was good enough for fifth place in the Eastern Conference, a mere two games adrift of the first place Philadelphia 76ers. Stretched over the length of this year’s 72-game NBA season, that winning percentage translates to 45 victories and a certain spot in the playoffs.

Considering the franchise hasn’t won that many contests even with a normal 82-game schedule since the 2012-13 campaign, and hasn’t finished above .500 or played so much as a single postseason tilt in the same span, who can blame Knicks fans for daring to get excited? After all, the wins included both that comeback effort against one of the Western Conference’s better squads and, one week earlier, a 20-point trouncing of the Milwaukee Bucks, the team that had finished the interrupted 2019-20 regular season with the best record in the league, and a favorite of many pundits to once again be the class of the East.

Of course, no matter how many times one watches “Casablanca,” Humphrey Bogart’s Rick always convinces Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa to get on the plane, leaving them with only an aching memory of what might have been. One week and four straight losses – three by double-digits – later, a familiar reality is starting to set in at MSG. Knicks fans know all too well how this movie ends.

The Knicks began the season with new faces at the top. Leon Rose was appointed team president last March, just days before the NBA season shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. When play resumed at the end of July, New York, with more than twice as many losses as wins at the time of the suspension of play, wasn’t invited to the league’s Orlando bubble. But while other franchises were busy fighting for the Larry O’Brien Trophy, Rose did his best to keep the Knicks in the news by naming Tom Thibodeau as the team’s new head coach. It would be unfair to judge the work of either man just a dozen games into their first full season on the job. This is true even by the standards of the Knicks, a club that cycles through executives and coaches the way some teams go through sneakers. Rose is the fourth team president and Thibodeau the seventh sideline leader since New York last made the playoffs.

Still, the choice of both men seems at least a bit odd. Rose was a highly regarded player agent, but has never held a front office job before, a lack of NBA executive experience that doubtless reminds some fans of the disastrous tenure of Phil Jackson, so enormously successful as a head coach and so manifestly out of his depth almost from the moment franchise owner Dolan named him team president in 2014. In contrast Thibodeau has plenty of coaching experience, but his record hasn’t improved as his resume has lengthened. In five years with the Chicago Bulls, his teams never matched the .756 and .758 winning percentages and division titles of his first two seasons. Then in two-plus years running the Minnesota Timberwolves, Thibodeau showed little evidence of being able to change the fortunes of what was admittedly not a showcase franchise. He’s also had three squads lose in the first round of the playoffs, two of which did so as favorites.

It should be noted that the Knicks do appear to be giving maximum effort for Thibodeau, and realistically expectations should be limited for a roster that is lacking in star power. What the lineup also appears to lack is offensive ability. Through the first dozen games the team’s offensive rating is 28th in the league, better than just Oklahoma City and Cleveland. That glaring weakness was mitigated in the season’s first couple weeks by a top-10 defense, but the recent string of losses has sent New York spiraling down the standings in that stat as well.

But if for Knicks fans the early season thrill is destined to become one more long, disappointing slog, the more pressing problem may lie on the far side of the East River. Over in that other borough, in the presumably less famous but far better looking arena that is the Barclays Center in the heart of Brooklyn, the Nets have long dreamt of supplanting the Knicks as Gotham’s number one basketball team. In its 75th year Dolan’s franchise can offer history, its well-known address, and a pair of titles. That has generally been enough for most fans when weighed against the upstarts in the Yuppie borough, transplanted from another state altogether and able to claim only two championships in the long since forgotten ABA.

Then in 2019 Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, without so much as a glimpse at the Knicks, settled on the Nets as the team for which they would try to win a championship. Durant was rehabbing from a major Achilles tendon injury, so sat out last year, and Irving’s first season in Brooklyn was also cut short. But this year both are back and are now about to be joined by James Harden, who forced his way out of Houston this week.

There is of course no guarantee that the triumvirate will work well together. Irving’s record as a teammate is less than exemplary, and the NBA was investigating whether he had violated the league’s COVID-19 protocols even as the Harden trade was being announced. And Harden himself showed more than a little selfishness as he strongarmed his way off the Rockets roster. But the potential of the lineup that’s about to take the court at the Barclays is beyond doubt. If the would-be super team in Brooklyn becomes one in fact, it could be enough to make Knicks fans decide they should just change the channel and watch an old movie.

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